Top Contender Concerns
July 19, 2017
By Joe Nelson
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With double-digit game leads in their respective divisions and record setting paces, it is easy to project a World Series matchup between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros. Both teams deserve to be the clear favorites in their leagues, but here are a few concerns for baseball’s top contenders with the second half of the season underway.
The best regular season team doesn’t usually win the World Series: With 103 wins, the 2016 Chicago Cubs had the top record and baseball and they went on to win the World Series as well in dramatic fashion to snap a long run of futility for the franchise. The Cubs were the first National League team to post the best record in baseball and also win the World Series since the 1986 New York Mets and only the 1995 Atlanta Braves in a strike-shortened season joins those two NL teams having the top NL record while also capturing the World Series. A handful of American League teams have accomplished the feat, but it is not the norm with the Cubs being only the sixth team overall to pace baseball and win the World Series since the Mets in ’86.
Wild Card Winners are dangerous: The change to a one-game wild card matchup in the 2012 season put more emphasis on winning the division and less value on being the wild card with a one-game do-or-die situation for those squads. While being in a wild card spot is less desirable in the current format, being the team that wins a wild card game can be a springboard to a great postseason run. In 2014, the Royals won a wild card game and kept playing until Game 7 of the World Series. In 2016, the Blue Jays were wild card winners and then also advanced to the ALCS. The 2014 Giants were World Series champions starting from a wild card spot while the 2012 Cardinals and the 2015 Cubs also won division series matchups from the wild card spot, upsetting the NL’s top seeds.
Based solely on records, right now the #2 seeds in each league would be at an advantage over the #1 seeds as the current Central division leaders that would be the #3 seeds are weaker teams than the top wild card teams. Subjectively, the Indians and Cubs could emerge in the Central title spots to change that equation but should the Brewers, Twins, or Royals win a Central division title, undoubtedly that will be a preferable draw for the East division winners than the wild card winner that the Dodgers or Astros would likely end up facing in the division round.
The Dodgers reliance on left-handed pitching: Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, and Rich Hill have amazing numbers with a combined 32-6 record with great strikeout rates and ERAs. Having three excellent left-handed starters in the rotation is a luxury any team would love to have, but in the potential NL playoff landscape, it may create less than ideal matchups for the Dodgers. The Dodgers had the NL’s best team OPS vs. left-handed pitching in the first half of the season at .819, but the next five teams on that list are five of the six teams in contention for NL playoff spots with the Cubs (.802), Nationals (.793), Braves (.790), Brewers (.779), and Rockies (.779). Only Arizona struggles against left-handed pitching among the potential postseason opponents for the Dodgers and the Dodgers could wind up needing to beat two of those teams to reach the World Series.
The Dodgers are good enough to out-slug any of those teams in a short series, but the pitching advantage that Los Angeles might appear to have could be overstated in a short series. Against those five teams that excel against left-handed pitching, Los Angeles is only a modest 14-10 as the amazing record this season has been built on going a combined 32-3 vs. a marginal grouping of squads (Reds, Royals, Marlins, Mets, Phillies, Pirates, and Padres). Despite the Diamondbacks struggling vs. left-handed pitching, they have actually out-scored the Dodgers despite losing six of the 10 meetings this season.
Houston has struggled against the AL’s top teams: Houston has put up incredible scoring results to pull away with a huge lead in the AL West, creating little urgency for the team to make aggressive moves at the trade deadline. Houston is 25-9 vs. the Mariners, Rangers, and Athletics, outscoring those division rivals by 68 runs in 34 games. Against teams the Astros might actually see in the postseason, the numbers are troubling however, going 1-2 vs. Boston and 1-5 vs. Cleveland this season. Houston is 5-2 vs. the Yankees, but they only outscored New York by two runs combined in those seven games.
Houston has a +169 net scoring differential on the season, but they are +118 runs in games decided by five or more runs as they have poured on meaningless runs on several occasions in contests that were already in hand yet rarely have suffered a lopsided defeat. Houston has also gone 7-0 in interleague action drawing marginal Atlanta and Miami squads from the NL East as the path to the great record has been favorable so far and the team hasn’t been in a lot of tense close games in the late innings similar to what may be ahead in the postseason.
Recent playoff demons for the Dodgers: Since winning the 1988 World Series, the Dodgers have lost 10 of 14 playoff series that they have been involved in, going 22-37 in the individual playoff games including losing in the NLCS four times in the last nine years. Kershaw will unfairly shoulder some of the blame for the recent playoff failures and it is true that his postseason ERA is 4.55 in 89 innings and he was shelled in both of his critical NLCS Game 6 starts, allowing 12 runs in nine innings in 2013 and 2016. Wood owns a 4.91 ERA in his four playoff outings, Hill owns a 4.50 ERA in four playoff outings, Kenta Maeda had a 6.75 ERA in last season’s playoffs, and Brandon McCarthy has never pitched in the postseason as there will be questions for the starting staff in October. That concern is also making a big assumption that this quintet of starters with a lengthy injury history will be active on the playoff roster.
Playoff Inexperience for the Astros: Houston was deemed ahead of schedule with a run to the wild card game in the 2015 season, going 86-76 in the regular season. The Astros bested the Yankees in that game and then took a 2-1 ALDS lead on the Royals. Inexperience showed as Houston crumbled and lost the series, blowing early leads in all three games they lost in the series including notably losing Game 4 with the series on the line despite a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning.
Given the huge division lead and a current 10.5-game edge over the AL’s #2 team Houston isn’t likely to have an overly meaningful game the rest of the regular season and will have to jump into October playoff intensity against a team that will have some momentum off a wild card game win. Add that star shortstop Carlos Correa is likely to be out until late in the regular season and this is a team that might get a wake-up call in the playoffs against a team that plays its way into the postseason despite the gaudy regular season numbers for Houston that will have been built mostly in early season action.
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